Stop the Ambassadorships for sale

Imagine this conversation. U.S. Senator: “Good morning, Ambassador designate. I see that you have been nominated as our Ambassador to Sri Lanka. Have you ever been to Colombo?

Ambassador designate: “Yes, Senator. But I am going to Sri Lanka, not to Latin America.”

U.S. Senator: “Colombo happens to be the capital of Sri Lanka. Have you heard of Bandaranayake?

Ambassador designate: No, Senator. But I assure you, as soon as I arrive in Sri Lanka, I shall visit that place.”

Money counts

This conversation may be apocryphal. But given the way the Presidents of the United States appoint ambassadors out of those who have paid big financial contributions to the Democratic party, even more bizarre conversations may take place during the Senate confirmation hearings; the qualification is not knowledge of history or geography, but the weight of the money bags deposited. This is part of the ‘spoils system’, except that, over the years, a price tag has been fixed for ambassadorships. U.S. President Richard M. Nixon had once even suggested that a floor price of $250,000 should be suggested for ambassadorships.

Now that U.S. President Joe Biden is in the process of filling up thousands of high-level posts, and the Senate has begun considering the various names for confirmation, the ambassadorial aspirants, who had paid money to the party, have also begun to assert their claims. Making the right appointments is crucial for Mr. Biden to clean up the mess created by his predecessor, Donald Trump. Mr. Biden has appointed Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a retired career diplomat as Ambassador to the United Nations and she has been confirmed by the Senate, but many heavy contributors are waiting in the wings. Anticipating that Mr. Biden will offer ambassadorial positions to some of his major donors — most of who are not particularly suited for such assignments — a member of the editorial board of The New York Times, Michelle Cottle, has made a fervent plea to Mr. Biden, in an article (March 18, 2021, Stop letting rich people buy ambassadorships) to “jettison the skeezy practice of rewarding big campaign contributors with Ambassadorships”.

Entrenched as a ‘tradition’

This is not the first time that a torch is being shone on this unfair practice. A study, some years ago, by some legal experts had recommended that rich people buying ambassadorships should be stopped. In 1980, a decision was taken that most ambassadors should be career foreign service officers. Still, succeeding Presidents have filled from a minimum of 30% to a maximum of 57% (under Mr. Trump) of the posts with donors. Since such a tradition has been established, Mr. Biden may not be able to stop it either. The crucial question would be on what to do with those who had made donations for diplomatic stardom.

The appointments have solid backing of the U.S. Constitution. Article II provides that the President “shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint ambassadors”. The President enjoys wide latitude in selecting a nominee and the Senate is comparably free to choose whether to advise and consent. The onus for the quality and integrity of the nominees rests on the President, but the Senate has the right to hold back confirmation of any nominee, including career diplomats.

Complicated process

The path to ambassadorships for donors is not at all smooth. The Senate confirmation is quite a complicated process in which the investigating agencies examine their entire past to see whether they have ever been guilty of any misdemeanour, which disqualifies them for the high appointment. Anything adverse that comes to the notice of the agencies will be conveyed to the nominee concerned. It is then up to him to decide whether to face the charges or quietly withdraw his candidature. There is an example of an Indian-American having been considered as Ambassador to Fiji and some other Pacific island states but who had to withdraw his nomination after the Federal Bureau of Investigation had communicated to him that it would be in his interest to withdraw rather than face an investigation into his past.

There was another example of a donor ambassador, a rich businessman from Buffalo, who had apparently paid a huge sum for the U.S. Presidential campaign. He made no secret of his having been appointed on the strength of his financial contribution. He had his own grievances such as being denied permission by the State Department to bring his own private aircraft to Fiji. When he figured out that he would be accredited to six island states from Fiji and that there were only weekly flights from Fiji to the other capitals, he thought his own plane would be a great asset.

The ambassador spent his own money to refurbish the Embassy residence and to entertain well, with the choicest food and wines flown in from the U.S. He did not bother much about the politics of the South Pacific as he knew that he was there not to pursue a career but to enjoy a well-earned holiday. He went to an island state called Tuvalu, which has a total population of 5,000 to present his credentials. He saw a little store at the airport which sold local handicrafts and asked the owner how much it cost. The bewildered owner asked which item he was looking for. “The whole shop,” he said. The owner said that he would not be able to sell the whole shop as it would take several months to get the stock replenished and there would be no handicrafts shop at the airport.

The Indian way

India has a more sophisticated system of appointing “political” ambassadors, not for donation to political parties, but as an avenue to recognise and reward talent. Till very recently, career diplomats could not aspire to ambassadorial posts in London, Washington or Moscow as distinguished people from different walks of life were appointed to add weight to the positions. In the early years, Maharajas were appointed to several posts. And later, politicians were sent abroad when they had to be kept away from the country. The Government apparently has the discretion of appointing political ambassadors in up to 30% of the posts. But now, the number of political ambassadors is small, if at all, and the senior posts are open to career diplomats.

India has had some very distinguished and successful political ambassadors, who had access to the Prime Minister back home and to high levels in the host countries. Examples are three political ambassadors in Moscow (Dr. K.S. Shelvankar, D.P. Dhar and I.K. Gujral) and one in Washington (Naresh Chandra); all of them fulfilled certain criteria set by the Government, which included greater acceptability of political ambassadors in major capitals. Senior career diplomats were assigned to these posts as Deputy Chiefs of Mission, often with ambassadorial rank, to do much of the work, leaving the political ambassadors to deal with high policy.

The most celebrated political ambassador was Kushok Bakula Rinpoche, a Buddhist monk from Ladakh, who was appointed to Mongolia. He is credited with reviving Buddhism in Mongolia. The Head of State himself used to pay obeisance to him as the Mongolians followed the same Mahayana Buddhism practised in Ladakh. Even after he completed his diplomatic assignment (January 1990 to October 2000), Kushok Bakula Rinpoche retained strong ties with Mongolia till he died in his eighties.

False notion

In recent years, career ambassadors are occupying those posts which were considered political in nature. But the practice continues in many countries because of the general feeling that long careers in the Foreign Service are not necessary to be effective ambassadors. In other words, diplomacy is not considered a profession for specialists, a notion as ridiculous as appointing a politician as the Surgeon General or a General.

We do not know whether Mr. Biden will heed the advice not to appoint donors as ambassadors. But if he does, there will be many frustrated donors in Washington and one source of political funding will dry up. On the other hand, the credibility of Biden diplomacy will increase and career diplomats will have better prospects.

T.P. Sreenivasan is a former Ambassador of India, who spent 10 years in the U.S. in different diplomatic assignments

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Printable version | May 16, 2021 9:46:51 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/stop-the-ambassadorships-for-sale/article34218208.ece

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